Wednesday, 11 February 2009

SSO Chamber Concert: In Memory of Great Artists / Review

SSO Chamber Concert
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (8 February 2009)

An edited version of this review was published by The Straits Times on 11 February 2009.

Encountering a sizeable audience attending a concert of wholly 20th century music is always a gratifying sight. While the names of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975, above) may seem like old hat to certain quarters, their names still spell box office trepidation to promoters and performers alike. So kudos to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s chamber music initiative for taking the plunge, as the rewards were bounteous.

The most forbidding music was heard first. In Shostakovich’s rarely performed Seventh String Quartet (Op.108), all ears were transfixed upon violinist Chan Yoong Han’s (left) insinuating opening solo, answered by cellist Chan Wei Shing’s laconic reply in three notes. This pivotal and recurring leitmotif was to resound with greater vehemence in the 3rd movement, by which time the quartet had made an indelible impression with its tautly driven narrative.

Expertly careening round hairpin turns, no better illustrated in the finale’s furious fugue, this was a reading of understated virtuosity complimented by luminous clarity. Second violinist Lim Shue Churn’s opening in the slow movement was close to perfection in setting the doom-laden tone, while Marietta Ku’s droll viola provided the balance needed for the ensemble to work.

Due to programming conflicts, Tchaikovsky’s glorious Piano Trio (in memory of Nicholas Rubinstein, hence the concert’s title) made way for two shorter works. Violinist Chan paired up with pianist Low Shao Suan in Prokofiev’s Five Melodies (Op.35bis), a favourite of the great David Oistrakh. Adapted from wordless songs, the violin’s bittersweet vocalises ambled from quiet murmurings to soaring climaxes, sharing the same ethereal fairy-tale sound world as the composer’s First Violin Concerto.

Then came Shostakovich’s only Cello Sonata (Op.40) in a passionate reading by SSO principal cellist Nella Hunkins (left) and pianist Low Shao Ying. Hunkins dedicated her performance of the elegiac slow movement to her sole Russian grandparent, with its heart-on-sleeve Slavic melancholy laid bare. Elsewhere, the duo reveled in the Russian’s curious blend of easy lyricism and spiky dissonance.

The palpable see-sawing and obstinate rhythms of the Scherzo immediately brought to mind a performance of this movement in the very same venue by a late great – Mstislav Rostropovich in 1992. That this evening’s performance could stand shoulder to shoulder speaks volumes; Hunkins’ generous artistry will be missed on her retirement from the SSO.

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